A Republican Looking for Latino Votes ... in Nebraska

A shoo-in Senate campaign attempts to win votes without endorsing immigration reform.

Ben Sasse, republican congressional candidate from Nebraska, is interviewed by Roll Call.

Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In this Bill Buckner year for Tea Party organizations, Nebraska stood out as a rare, clean win. Ben Sasse, a Bush administration veteran and conservative college president, jumped into an open seat Senate race early and eventually demolished two squishier opponents. Few pollsters have bothered to check in on his race; when they have, they've found the Republican up by 20 points or so, in a state that has not elected a Democrat in an open seat since 2000. His opponent, Dave Domina, has run an intriguing populist campaign and raised about one dollar for every six in the Sasse bank.

But Domina is personally wealthy, and Sasse would prefer to make the rubble bounce than to coast in a good GOP year. Yesterday the candidate called me as he headed out to canvass in Lexington, a city in the center of Nebraska that, to the surprise of outsiders, is more than half Hispanic. His campaign had just purchased time for a 60-second radio ad, en Espanol, aimed at the 10 percent of Nebraskans who are Hispanic and have, recently, voted for Democrats. In 2008, the proportion of Hispanics who actually joined the electorate was far lower—3 percent. Sasse wants them.

“I don’t know if this has ever being done before,” said Sasse. “There are three Spanish language stations in the state, so we're going to them, going to digital video and cell phones.”

Like virtually every 2014 Republican, Sasse opposed the 2013 Senate immigration reform bill. The ad does not mention immigration. “Ben Sasse believes government must do better for people trying to build the American Dream,” intones the narrator. “Ben's great great grandparents were immigrants to America—he knows that immigrants built this great country.” That is the message. There is no chatter about guest worker status, or anything like that.

“The way that the national media reports on this,” said Sasse, “it’s like immigration is the only thing Hispanic voters care about, and it’s not. If you talk to people on front porches, it’s never what’s brought up. I do oppose amnesty. I do oppose a pathway to citizenship that leads to voting. But I have that conversation with real people on front porches.”

Do they disagree? It depends if the topic comes up at all. “People don’t really talk about it that much,” said Sasse. “I’m frustrated with the false choice that either you believe in amnesty or you can’t sell the American dream. We can find lots of common ground. We talk about schools.” The idea that immigration reform is a precondition for any conversation with Hispanic voters, according to Sasse, is something “the national Republican Party believes and reporters believe” without evidence, regardless of its appearance in the RNC's post-2012 autopsy report. “Only the activists lead with that issue.”

If Sasse's right, he can crack the Democratic base in a rarely-Democratic state, and do it after adding 2012's deferred action executive order to the “Constitutional Madness” bracket he compiled from the Obama administration's greatest abuses. Conservatives had already been looking at the Southwest, especially Texas, for signs that they could win Hispanic votes without meeting the Democrats on immigrant legalization. Now they can add Nebraska to the study.